In 2019 GESAMP celebrated its fifty years of service in ocean science

We've known for centuries that the world is around two-thirds water and that the oceans and seas are nearly all connected. But the first images of earth from space infused that rather dry knowledge with an almost visceral understanding. For the first time, people other than scientists and explorers were able to see, and feel, for themselves the universal significance of the oceans and how threats to their preservation and conservation were not just local, but global.

It was against this backdrop of environmental awakening that, in 1969, the United Nations began planning for what would become the era-defining environmental conference, held in Stockholm in 1972. In the run-up to that conference, the need emerged for an international body to undertake independent assessments and research to feed a growing requirement for dependable, accurate, trustworthy and detailed scientific knowledge on ocean issues. And so, GESAMP was created.

GESAMP is the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection. It’s the independent body of experts that advises the United Nations system on both on-going and newly arising marine environmental scientific issues.

GESAMP’s first major task was to provide the main input on the marine environment to the Stockholm Conference. In many ways, this really put the marine environment on the international radar. Until then, it was generally felt that the ocean was so vast that human activities would not affect it on a global scale, even though local effects were observed and understood. GESAMP’s input to the 1972 conference changed all that.

Since then, GESAMP has become firmly established as the “go-to” body, throughout the UN system, for ocean-related science, providing input and support to agencies, governments and industries on a wide range of subjects. The “Scientific basis for disposal of waste into the sea”; “Marine pollution implications of ocean energy development”; “Comprehensive framework for the assessment and regulation of waste disposal in the marine environment” and “Environmental impacts of coastal aquaculture” may sound dry, but these and many other GESAMP reports and studies actually constitute the bedrock of what we know and understand about the marine environment today.

GESAMP’s 1982 finding that the main sources of most marine pollution are land-based had a major impact. It was widely quoted for decades afterwards to demonstrate the impact of land-based activities on the marine environment. When the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (widely known as the GPA) was adopted by 108 Governments and the European Commission in 1995, it drew heavily on the scientific knowledge that GESAMP pioneered. There’s no doubt that GESAMP changed the global perspective on this key topic.

Further major global assessments from GESAMP in 1990 and 2001 reinforced the importance of land-based activities and added weight to the understanding that the most severe problems were in enclosed seas and areas near to shore. They also established that alterations of major fluxes, such as nutrients and sediments, and habitat degradation are actually more significant, at the global level, than toxic pollutants.

GESAMP’s 2001 assessments (reports 70 & 71) on ‘A Sea of Troubles’ and ’Protecting the Oceans from Land-based Activities’ were commissioned as a major scientific contribution to support the first intergovernmental meeting to review how the GPA was being implemented. Report 71 reconfirmed that broad-scale issues such as sediments, nutrients, fisheries and habitats, remained the highest threats. The stark statement in report 70 that “most of the problems identified decades ago have not been resolved, and many are worsening” was widely quoted in many different scientific forums and had a major role in focusing thinking and galvanizing action.

Today, GESAMP is jointly sponsored by ten UN bodies that each have responsibilities relating to the marine environment. IMO provides the secretariat function from its headquarters in London. GESAMP has around 15 individual members and draws on a wider global roster of experts from a wide range of relevant disciplines, who all act in an independent and individual capacity. Studies and assessments are usually carried out by dedicated working groups, comprising largely of scientists from the broader GESAMP network.

GESAMP has often been at the forefront of the global discussions on emerging issues. For example, GESAMP’s working group on ‘Sources, fate and distribution of plastics and microplastics in the marine environment” was established in 2012 to support the ongoing discussions in major environmental fora on plastics in the oceans and has since then produced three reports.

GESAMP’s four working groups on the air/sea exchange of chemicals have produced nine reports and 26 scientific papers - showing clearly that the atmosphere is a critical transport path for many substances entering the ocean.

In addition to providing the UN system and wider public with a better understanding of issues related to the marine environment, some of GESAMP’s working groups provide direct input to major intergovernmental regulatory processes. For example, WG 1 provides an evaluation of any harmful substances that are to be carried in bulk by ship, and WG 34 evaluates active substances used in ballast water management systems onboard ships. The advice from both these groups feeds directly into the decision-making process and regulations adopted at IMO.

GESAMP continues to support and underpin marine environmental knowledge through in-depth studies, assessments, analyses, and reviews of specific topics. Not only that, it seeks to actively identify emerging issues impacting on the state of the marine environment. GESAMP’s trademark is to synthesize extremely complex global processes into readable (non-political) overviews. GESAMP has also started to provide management guidelines and proposals for its users, which are primarily the UN systems and its many organs, agencies and associated international and regional programmes and treaties.

As it celebrates 50 years of valuable service to the global scientific community and to the United Nations system, GESAMP continues to provide a trusted, credible, respected and, above all, independent scientific foundation on which the political decisions about our environment – decisions that will affect us all in the very near future – can be based.

Over the last half century, the issues, problems and threats to the marine environment have changed and so has the knowledge of causes and potential solutions. GESAMP remains at the forefront of the global system that identifies these changes and concerns and endeavours to provide front-line advice and guidance based on the best available scientific evidence.

50th anniversary presentations

TitleAuthor(s)PublisherJournal Series
Science to advice the UN System by Peter KershawGESAMPGESAMP Office
GESAMP Achievements by Robert DuceGESAMPGESAMP Office
GESAMP the Regular Process and the importance of Ocean Science by Juliette Babb-RileyGESAMPGESAMP OfficeReport of the 4th Session
GESAMP's future support to the UN - by Henrik EnevoldsenGESAMPGESAMP Office
Future challenges in Marine Protection by Wendy Watson-WrightGESAMPGESAMP Office
GESAMP next 50 years by David VousdenGESAMPGESAMP Office

50th anniversary photo gallery